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Biden’s Declining Approval Rating Is Not Just About Afghanistan

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

In the past few weeks, President Biden’s job approval rating has dropped precipitously while his disapproval rating has risen sharply amid concerns surrounding the delta variant of the coronavirus, the associated economic fallout from the pandemic and the ongoing withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Just how much have things changed for Biden? A month ago, his approval rating stood at 52.7 percent and his disapproval rating sat at 42.7 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, for a net approval rating of +10.0 percentage points. But as of Thursday,1 his approval rating stood at 47.1 percent and his disapproval rating at 47.0 percent, for a net approval rating of +0.1 points. 

In an era of deep political polarization where we rarely see big shifts in public opinion of presidents, this counts as a pretty big swing.

There seem to be two separate events driving this rapid decline. First, Biden’s approval rating fell 2.5 points from July 26 to Aug. 5 as the delta variant surged. This slide is reflected in Biden’s overall handling of COVID-19, too. His approval rating on that issue fell about 3 points, from about 60 percent to 57 percent, after hovering in the low 60s for much of his presidency. And it’s continued to tick down from there:

Then things fell apart in Afghanistan just weeks before the last remaining U.S. troops were scheduled to leave the country. On Aug. 15, the U.S.-backed government completed its collapse and the Taliban fully returned to power after being pushed out by U.S.-led military forces in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Initially, Americans overwhelmingly supported Biden’s decision in April to withdraw the remaining U.S. military forces from the country. Even now, there are more in favor of leaving than staying, but most Americans think Biden has handled the withdrawal poorly. Last weekend, a CBS News/YouGov survey found that about 3 in 4 Americans felt the withdrawal was going “very” or “somewhat badly,” while a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Tuesday found that 62 percent disapproved of how the Biden administration has handled the withdrawal. 

It’s unclear whether the circumstances in Afghanistan are entirely responsible for the roughly 3-point decline in Biden’s approval rating since Aug. 5, given the continued prevalence of the delta variant in the U.S. Moreover, as I wrote earlier in August, some of Biden’s dip in approval could be related to growing economic concerns and a souring among some independent voters. That said, there’s no question that at least part of Biden’s decline in approval has been fueled by what’s happened in Afghanistan. And it could fall even more. A pair of suicide bombers killed at least 60 Afghans and 12 American troops outside the Kabul airport yesterday, an attack that ISIS-K claimed responsibility for and which could further sour American public opinion on Biden’s handling of the withdrawal.

Why has Biden’s approval rating fallen? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

As such, Biden’s approval rating might not bounce back just yet given how volatile the situation is in Afghanistan, but at the same time there is reason to believe it eventually will. That’s because polls conducted amid a high-profile event often show large shifts in opinion that then fade over time. We’ve also seen some reversion to the mean for recent presidents’ approval ratings after their ratings fell. Early in his presidency, Donald Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey amid ongoing investigations of his administration for Russian interference in the 2016 election and then revealed classified intel to Russian officials in a meeting at the White House the next day. In the aftermath of these events, Trump’s approval rating fell from about 42 percent on May 9 to 38 percent in early June. But his approval rating then inched back up to around 40 percent later that month.2

At this point, though, Biden’s approval rating might fall a bit further before it reverts to any sort of mean. This is in part because the final withdrawal of American troops is set for next week, and that could go awry given how precarious the situation is in Afghanistan. Moreover, the delta variant and corresponding economic concerns aren’t necessarily going away anytime soon. An early August survey by Gallup found that just 23 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the United States, down from 36 percent in May. Meanwhile, Gallup also found that Americans once again view COVID-19 as the country’s most important problem after concerns had dipped in the spring and early summer. And as our presidential approval tracker of Biden’s response to the coronavirus shows, just 53 percent of Americans now approve of his handling of the pandemic. What happens next in Afghanistan will be important for Biden’s approval rating, but equally important is whether Biden is able to navigate the other challenges facing him.

Other polling bites

  • Two new surveys from CBS News/YouGov and Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 6 in 10 respondents thought in-person students should be required to wear masks. CBS News/YouGov polled parents of school-age kids and found that 58 percent felt masks should be required for students, while 36 percent said they should be optional (6 percent said they shouldn’t be allowed). Meanwhile, AP/NORC polled all adults and found that 58 percent strongly or somewhat favored mask-wearing for children. Both polls found predictable partisan divides on the issue, with more than 8 in 10 Democrats agreeing masks should be required or favoring mask-wearing, while only around 3 in 10 Republicans felt the same.
  • Vaccinated Americans may soon need a booster shot to combat COVID-19, and a Morning Consult survey found that 77 percent of vaccinated adults said they would get a booster if it were recommended, while 12 percent said they were unsure and 5 percent were opposed. An additional 6 percent said they’d already gotten a booster shot, which has been encouraged for people with compromised immune systems or organ transplant recipients. The survey was conducted right around the time the Biden administration announced that booster shots would be recommended.
  • Speaking of parents, they believe it’s harder to be a parent now than 20 years ago, according to a new survey by Ipsos. Overall, 69 percent of parents felt this way, with more mothers (72 percent) than fathers (65 percent) agreeing with that sentiment. This split may have something to do with the fact that 87 percent of women with children under 18 said in the same survey that they were “responsible for the majority of childcare and decision-making in the household,” compared with 69 percent of men. Overall, though, 88 percent of parents agreed that it was more expensive to be a parent now than 20 years ago.
  • More than eight months after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, NBC News found that attitudes toward the attack have settled along somewhat typical partisan lines. According to the poll, 59 percent of Americans agreed it was an attempt to overturn the election versus 38 percent who disagreed, with 89 percent of Democrats agreeing compared with just 32 percent of Republicans (56 percent of independents also agreed). Meanwhile, 46 percent of Americans agreed that the incident had been exaggerated to discredit Trump versus 50 percent who disagreed, with 82 percent of Republicans agreeing compared with only 12 percent of Democrats (43 percent of independents also agreed).
  • After allegations broke last week that “Jeopardy!” executive producer Mike Richards had used sexist and demeaning language, Richards quickly stepped down as the next host of the TV quiz show. In a Morning Consult poll conducted after Richards had bowed out, 17 percent of the show’s viewers said they wanted actor and longtime “Reading Rainbow” TV host LeVar Burton to be the next permanent host, the most of any candidates named. Former “Jeopardy!” contestant Ken Jennings was second at 14 percent, followed by actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik at 12 percent, with the remaining contenders all at 8 percent or lower. Bialik was already in line to host special editions of the show, but following Richards’s exit, she took over temporary hosting duties.

What Americans think about ending the war in Afghanistan

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  1. At 5 p.m. Eastern.

  2. In a postscript, despite his reputation as being impervious to scandal, Trump often experienced brief blips in his approval rating. His approval rating would fall for a brief period below 40 percent then bounce back up. But by May 2019, his approval rating mostly settled just above or below 42 percent for the next year and a half.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.